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Thursday, 26 June 2008
Page: 6039

Mr DREYFUS (10:07 AM) —Australia has recognised a duty to ensure the conservation, protection and transmission to future generations of its cultural and natural heritage. Australia has recognised this duty by becoming party to the United Nations Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. If we are complacent in the management of our places of natural beauty and ignore the effects of climate change, we will be unable to pass the Great Barrier Reef on to our children, and that would be a great tragedy. The Great Barrier Reef is a place of remarkable ecological variety and astounding natural beauty. With 2,900 individual reefs, 400 types of coral, 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 types of mollusc, it is one of the most significant natural habitats for in situ conservation of biological diversity on the planet. The reef is also home to threatened species of outstanding value from the point of view of science and conservation. It provides a breeding and spawning ground for unique coral reef associated species, including 43,000 square kilometres of seagrass meadows, which are vital to the future survival of the dugong.

Tourism involving the reef is central to the local economy. In 2005 there were 820 tourist operators and 1,500 vessels and aircraft permitted to operate in the park. In its February 2003 report on the reef, the Productivity Commission estimated that the economic worth of tourism in the Great Barrier Reef is over $4 billion per annum. The fragility of the reef means that it is particularly sensitive to the effects of climate change. Increases in water temperature, storm frequency and sea acidity have led UNESCO to warn of increases in coral bleaching and the possibility that the Great Barrier Reef could follow the trend in the Indian Ocean, where 50 per cent of coral reefs have died. It is distressing to think that an Australian icon such as the Great Barrier Reef might have a limited future as a consequence of human activity. If ocean temperature anomalies on the reef reach three degrees over a period of several months, which they may do given the recent intensity of the El Nino southern oscillation, UNESCO predicts widespread coral death. The oceans are also an important sink of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Increasing dissolution of carbon dioxide levels has acidified the water, slowing the growth of corals and weakening their skeletal structure.

For these reasons, the government has introduced the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2008. This bill gives new powers to the marine park authority to enable a better response to environmental issues such as climate change threatening the park. The purpose of this amendment bill is to modernise the administration of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and to facilitate the integration of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act with the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. The bill also introduces new emergency management powers so the park authority may better respond to emergency situations. This amendment bill seeks to resolve any ambiguity as to whom the legislation applies. Section 5 of the bill clearly states that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act covers the Australia’s exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf is applicable to everyone within Australia, including foreign nationals.

The bill also updates the focus of the legislation. When the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act was drafted in the 1970s, concepts such as sustainable use and development did not have the currency that they enjoy today. This bill defines ecologically sustainable use and requires the marine park authority to act consistently with that objective. The amendment bill will encourage a greater respect for the park by introducing penalties for irresponsible use. This includes placing a responsibility on users to avoid or minimise any environmental damage associated with their activities. This is important because it raises awareness in the community of the effect of visitors to the park and encourages them to tread lightly. The old advice for visitors to land based national parks was to ‘take nothing but photographs and leave nothing but footprints’. The advice for visitors to the reef could be to ‘leave nothing but the wake of your boat and the bubbles from your scuba gear’.

The discharge of sewage from vessels has been a particular problem for the marine park authority. Nutrient and pathogen loadings caused by sewage can affect coral reefs and tropical seagrasses, particularly in bays and lagoons, which are less subject to tidal flushing. The bill’s provision that users minimise their environmental impact will help enforce requirements such as the directive that boats with 16 or more passengers travel one nautical mile from a reef, island or aquaculture facility before discharging sewage. This is part of a general aim to encourage users to self-regulate, sharing in the responsibility for the care of the park. This will also complement the Maritime Safety Authority’s ‘Stow it, Don’t Throw it’ campaign, which encourages people operating vessels to take their garbage and waste back home. Dumping is of particular concern on the reef as the large population of turtles and whales often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish.

Under the new arrangements the chair or a delegate will have greater power to carry out environmental impact assessments in relation to actions in the marine park. They will also take responsibility for certain statutory decisions associated with enforcement. This is intended to give the marine park authority a greater capacity to respond to breaches and play a greater role in environmental regulation.

This amendment bill is consistent with the Rudd government’s approach to federalism. It is an approach based on cooperation with the states and avoidance of unnecessary regulation. In line with this approach, item 25 of the amendment bill links this act with the Queensland legislation applicable in the park. Previously, if Queensland legislation governing fisheries was amended, the regulations under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act would also have to be amended. This has been changed so that marine park regulations simply require compliance with Queensland legislation in force from time to time. This renders the act easier to administer and reflects a commonsense approach to jurisdictional responsibilities.

You can well imagine the increased convenience that is going to flow from adopting this particular regulatory mechanism. It is obviously inconvenient to ensure conformity between state legislation and federal legislation if every time a state law is changed it is necessary to make new regulations under the federal act. The mechanism that has been adopted, which is a simple device to adopt Queensland law applying law in the marine park, is a far more practical approach.

Maritime safety is a particular focus in this amendment bill. The new powers granted to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to respond to emergency situations are intended to exist in conjunction with the powers of other emergency organisations such as the State Emergency Service and the Maritime Safety Authority. Australia is the world’s fifth largest shipping nation in terms of tonnes of cargo shipped and kilometres travelled and the Great Barrier Reef is one of the most sensitive marine areas in the world. Those two facts carry with them the possibility for conflict between protection of sensitive marine areas and very high levels of shipping. The marine park authority is partly responsible for balancing the reality of those two facts. This amendment bill reinforces the authority’s commitment to the continuous improvement of safety provisions and its disaster response capability.

Both Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people have strong connections with the sea country in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Clan groups have inhabited the region for over 40,000 years. Food from the sea has been an integral part of economy, culture and diet of Torres Strait Islanders, whose seafood consumption per person is among the highest in the world.

It is perhaps not well understand by most Australians that for Aboriginal people the sharp distinction that European culture makes between the land and the sea is a foreign concept. I have not spent a great deal of time with Aboriginal people or Torres Strait Islander people associated with the Great Barrier Reef but I have spent a considerable amount of time with Aboriginal people on the coast of Arnhem Land. In the time that I spent with people—particularly at Milingimbi and Elcho Island, which are on the Central Arnhem Land coast—one of the things that I found to be particularly powerful was the way in which people treated the sea as simply another part of their country. The naming of places and the stories that are associated with the land equally extended to places going far out to sea, for which there were not only names but in all cases a story to go with the named place as well.

In the Great Barrier Reef, traditional owners have played a significant role in improving populations of culturally significant animals, such as the green sea turtle or ‘Nam’ in the Meriam Mir language of the eastern Torres Straight islands. The turtle has an enduring place in the stories and ceremonies of Indigenous Australians passed down from generation to generation. Thanks to the efforts of the marine park authority and the Indigenous population, there has been a much greater recognition of the importance of the Great Barrier Reef as a breeding ground for the turtle population.

The traditional owners of the park also play a significant role in education. The Reef Guardians Program, offered to schools by the marine park authority, teaches students about the importance of the Barrier Reef as an ecosystem and the role of Indigenous people on the reef. This program is available to schools anywhere in Australia and is an important part of ensuring that the reef is preserved for future generations.

This amendment bill recognises the reef’s traditional owners by reinstating the statutory requirement that there be an Indigenous person with specific knowledge of and experience of Indigenous issues on the reef as a member of the authority. The previous government removed the Indigenous member requirement in July 2007, showing a particular and indeed striking insensitivity to the partnerships that had been built up between the traditional owners and the marine park authority. These amendments restore that requirement, ensuring that the management of the park will not only be responsive to Indigenous issues but benefit from the immense knowledge and experience the Indigenous community bring to the park.

This amendment bill modernises the marine park authority. It updates the framework and objectives within which they operate and gives them better tools to continue their excellent work. It provides for climate change, recognises Indigenous Australians and allows for the increasing number of Australians and visitors from overseas who are choosing to visit this spectacular natural phenomenon. Above all, this bill honours Australia’s commitment under the United Nations Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage, and will help preserve this place of pristine natural beauty. I commend the bill to the House.